Multnomah County Communications

IT'S A WEIRD thing to say, but being called a bitch might wind up working out in County Commissioner Loretta Smith’s favor.

Smith, of course, had every right to object strongly when Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury lobbed the epithet at the end of a heated December 21 commission meeting. And object she did, calling out Kafoury on the shocking lapse of professional courtesy and suggesting there were racial connotations to Kafoury’s choice of words. (Smith is Black. Kafoury is white.)

Kafoury’s been on her heels pretty much ever since. She issued an apologetic public statement soon after the hearing, penned another apology to Multnomah County employees just before the new year, and voiced regret yet again at the county commission meeting on January 4, at which a boatload of Smith supporters showed up to take Kafoury to task.

Suffice it to say Kafoury’s mistake has sucked up a lot of air in the county building of late. And that’s ideal for Smith.

See, Smith is running for Portland City Council. She’ll face off against the field of candidates vying to replace City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in this May’s primary election.

But because Smith is also a county commissioner, she has to play by some unique rules. County law says that if an elected official files for another elective office before the last year of their term, they must resign—as then-County Commissioner Kafoury did when she mounted a race for chair in 2013.

The rule has put Smith in an odd spot. Since last year, she’s been visibly building a campaign for council—raking in money, hiring a consultant, building a website. But because Smith hadn’t formally filed to run for city council until this year—the last year of her term—she says she had no obligation to resign her seat.

While activity like Smith’s isn’t entirely unique (former County Commissioner Jules Bailey has noted he did something similar when mounting a mayoral run), it’s also never really been scrutinized.

But with election reformers closely watching county politics this cycle, scrutiny has arrived. Late last year, activist Seth Woolley filed a complaint against Smith, alleging she’d been campaigning for city office without tweaking her political action committee to reflect that fact, as required under state law. The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office agreed, fining Smith $250.

It led to a serious question: If the state said Smith should have filed, was the fact that she didn’t file enough to stop her from being forced to resign? The answer would have to be sussed out in a county hearing, and that hearing would presumably be overseen by Kafoury, who’s clashed with Smith repeatedly.

Now it’s not clear whether any will occur. As the frazzled nerves die down, the county commission is sending a newly harmonious message. A January 8 statement from all five commission members said Kafoury and Smith had their first face-to-face meeting since the December 21 kerfuffle over the weekend.

“The Chair apologized to Commissioner Smith in person,” the joint statement said, “and both agreed they are stronger working together.”

How far that partnership goes—and how long it lasts—remains to be seen.